WEB: Jesse's Word of the Day

www.randomhouse.com/jesse

The word "phat" is a lot older than most people think--in fact, it appeared in Time magazine in the early '60s, on a list of "Negro argot" alongside "mellow," "cool," and "boss." (And you know how far behind Time must have been.) This scintillating factoid is one of hundreds found at Jesse's Word of the Day--where, as you might expect, an etymologist named Jesse answers one question a day about those weird, common phrases that everyone uses but no one really understands.

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For instance, take the phrase "beyond the pale": According to Jesse (who works for Webster's), it derives from an earlier usage of "pale," meaning "pole" or "fencepost." So if someone is beyond the pale, they've stepped outside accepted boundaries. Or the word "barbecue": It descends from the Spanish "barbacoa" and also from an Arawakan (Native American) word meaning "wooden grid." Finally, although you might not have wanted to know this, the words "phony" and "anus" share a common root: "fáinne," the Irish word for "ring."

Since the site contains almost no graphics, you should have no problem downloading the text, even if you're burdened with an antiquated Mac-osaurus like mine. The writing is equally snappy--William Safire could pick up a trick or two. Of course, like most information on the Web, even Jesse's expertise should be viewed somewhat critically; as with archeology and any other inexact science, etymological opinions are still opinions. I wouldn't bet my left kidney, for example, that "cut to the chase" has only been in common usage since the early 1980s, as Jesse suggests. But in light of all the flashy crud mucking up the Web these days, this smart little site still amounts to a simple pleasure.

 
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